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About that Peggy Noonan Column

Is it really true that Donald Trump doesn't understand his base?
June 26, 2020
About that Peggy Noonan Column

1. Republicans

Peggy Noonan has written one of her semi-regular columns where she ventures to observe that Donald Trump is manifestly unfit for office, before then waving her hands to equivocate and suggest that Joe Biden really hasn’t done enough, just because he’s leading the incumbent president by 14 points.

You see a lot of this from old guard Republicans.

They’ll look at some Trump outrage—like the concentration camp sign-off with China, or the press conference where he floats injecting disinfectants—and they’ll say, “This is just crazy town. This can’t stand.”

Then 48 hours later there’s a riot in Madison. Or the New York Times editorial page does something stupid and they flip back to, “But the other side is so bad . . .” As if the rioters or the New York Times opinion section were on the ballot opposite President Trump.

And just like that—poof!—the absolutely unpardonable outrage is forgotten.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand this is a mode of thought and I think a large part of it is because people like Noonan hold to a view of the world which she expresses nicely in her column:

He failed because he obsesses on his base and thinks it has to be fed and greased with the entertainments that alienate everyone else. But his base, which always understood he was a showman, wanted steadiness and seriousness in these crises, because they have a sense of the implications of things.He doesn’t understand his own base. I’ve never seen that in national politics.

Some of them, maybe half, are amused by his nonsense decisions and statements—let’s ban all Muslims; let’s end this deadbeat alliance; we have the biggest, best tests. But they are half of 40%, and they would stick with him no matter what. He doesn’t have to entertain them! He had to impress and create a bond with others.

The other half of his base is mortified by his antics and shallowness.

Noonan holds—surprise!—a conventional view of the state of conservatism and the Republican party, in which Trump is an aberration and the main body of the party hates his transformation of their movement from an ideological vehicle into a cathartic performance of perpetual grievance. From where I sit, this seems to be the dominant view among nearly all of the old guard Republicans and conservatives.

They believe that after Trump, the movement will go back to championing free trade and low taxes and conservative judges without all of the nonsense, because that’s what Republican voters really want.

At the superficial level, Noonan is wrong. Trump’s base does not seem to understand that he is a showman and there is no indication—zero, zilch, nada—that they wanted “steadiness and seriousness in these crises” or that they “have a sense of the implications of things.”

I say this because the polling on the coronavirus and masks and police brutality shows a consistent 20 percent or so of the country exactly where Trump is. The Kung Flu is a hoax; when the looting starts, the shooting starts; etc.

That percentage is close to half of the Republican electorate and probably a little bit more than half of the Republican primary vote.

There is no indication that these people view Showman Trump as a regrettable evil and every indication that, for them, all of the things Noonan sees as distractions are actually the payoff.

Trump understands his base infinitely better than Peggy Noonan does. And he is playing a different game than she realizes.

Peggy Noonan still sees Donald Trump as an interloper who temporarily took control of an ideological movement and, when he fails to retain political power, will lose control of this movement.

But Trump has never cared about the ends which can be accomplished with political power. He cares about controlling the movement. Because it is an asset.

Trump has remade conservatism and the Republican party as a single cult of his own personality. And precisely because he never provided steadiness and seriousness, he will control this cult even after he exits the White House.

Noonan still imagines that the conservative movement and the Republican party as she prefers them are the “true” versions which are supported by a silent majority of partisans.

I would like to believe this, too.

But I don’t.

2. The Virus Is Winning

I spent yesterday defending the honor of Big Media such as the New York Times.

I implore you to go look carefully at this absolutely stunning package the NYT put together on how the virus initially spread in America.

It’s one of the best pieces of data visualization I’ve ever seen. I cannot even imagine the man-hours that went into creating it.

(And it looks even better on mobile than it does on desktop. Which brings the achievement to another level still.)

When people complain about the New York Times op-ed page it makes me want to put my head through a table. The op-ed section is only slightly more important than the Times’ sports section. The value at the NYT is in the amazing depth of reporting they do on subject after subject.

Anyway . . .

More bad news: At the start of the pandemic I warned you that the real nightmare scenarios were going to be when the coronavirus hit the developing world.

That’s happening now. The WSJ has put together its own, very helpful, data visualization package on what’s happening in the developing world.

Here’s the graphic that should keep you up at night:

3. Fabulists

This entire piece is amazing:

Olga Deterding was so rich that when her red Bentley broke down on the London Road, she left it on the shoulder for anyone to claim. Then she tipped off a gossip columnist, as was her habit, explaining exactly where to find the car, and even suggesting a headline: “Too Rich To Wait.” It was 1963. Olga had become rather famous by the simple fact of being “the richest woman in the world.” Her fortune of £50 million dazzled, and she paraded it like a peacock.

A ruthless self-publicist, she liked to mail out studio shots to columnists and fans alike, which saw her stepping out of Cartier on Old Bond Street, examining a newly purchased jewel in the palm of her white glove. Even the smallest details of her had become the subject of public fascination. “OLGA BUYS A GOLD HONEY POT” roared one paper; “RICHEST WOMAN HATES CHRISTMAS” shrieked another. But Olga was not the richest woman in the world. She was, in fact, a liar.

For the past five years, I have been researching Olga’s life. For two decades, she invented herself through little white lies that got bigger and bigger. She was an unreliable narrator, a self-reporter, setting up camp in a luscious zone between two zoos: journalism and fiction. Over the years, she created her own menagerie, collecting each of her news clippings, cut from tabloids and broadsheets, and lovingly pasted into a set of sketchbooks (perhaps her “life’s work”). Olga often claimed that she was writing a story, a memoir, “the whole truth about my life!”—but she never quite did. Journalists became her surrogate writers; she got them to write the memoir she never could.

With Olga as a muse, I have become devoted to studying female fakers, storytellers, and frauds—self-fabulists who marble together fact and invention, sometimes for dramatic effect, but also, more perilously, for economic gain. Olga’s fortune was mere reputation, but she had enough money to look rich, live rich. She was a fabulist, yes, but she never quite tipped over into crime.

Read the whole thing. It’s from a literary journal I’d never heard of, called Affidavit.

I’ve just subscribed to their (free) newsletter. You might want to as well.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.